With its sand, surf and sun, the beach is a perfect place to escape from daily life. But, coastal environments are constantly threatened. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, beach closures and swim advisories are at a record high due to beach water contamination.
Of the 30 states with coastlines, North Carolina ranks 5th for clean beach water. Every coastal state, though, has at least one beach with pollution issues. In 2013, more than 10 percent of the water samples collected at American beaches raised concerns about water quality, and hundreds of beaches throughout the country were closed at some point in the season as a result of these concerns.
Water contamination can have significant impacts on public health and on the environments and economies of beach communities. Water pollution leads to illnesses from conjunctivitis to hepatitis and from ear infections to rashes. Pollution degrades delicate coastal habitats. And, the beach closures that occur every year adversely affect revenue from tourism.
While legislation such as the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act and the Clean Water Act protect our waterways and provide federal funds to monitor the cleanliness of beach water, clean beaches are truly in the hands of beachgoers.
Clean beaches actually begin hundreds of miles from shore. Urban runoff is responsible for 60 percent of beach water contamination. Urban runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, occurs when rainfall or snowmelt moves over or through the ground, collects natural or man-made pollutants and deposits them into waterways. Contaminants such as chemicals and organic wastes diminish water quality, harm fish and wildlife, damage native vegetation, pollute the municipal water supply and degrade natural recreation areas. You can prevent urban runoff by reducing your use of chemicals, storing chemicals securely, discarding wastes properly and preventing these contaminants from entering waterways and storm drains.
Before you journey to the coast, monitor the water quality forecasts of area beaches, and search for alerts, closures and advisories. The Division of Marine Fisheries of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources issues beach alerts and closures for the North Carolina coast. Choose to visit a beach where water quality is consistently monitored and where water samples do not exceed the national Beach Action Value threshold, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s most protective benchmark for assessing swimmer safety. If the water appears unclean or has a foul odor, do not swim. Avoid swimming immediately after a heavy rain, when urban runoff is most prevalent. Also, avoid swimming near pollution sources such as pipes, outfalls and ditches.
Do you part to maintain a sanitary beach. Stay out of the water if you are ill to avoid the spread of water-borne illnesses, and avoid beach water if you have open wounds or infections. Use public restrooms. If pets are allowed on the beach, discard pet wastes properly. If you are boating, discharge wastes at a pump station and not in the ocean.
Mind your waste at the beach. Use reusable food and beverage containers instead of plastic containers. Always deposit your litter – including cigarette litter – in designated receptacles, or carry your trash with you. Remember to recycle as much as possible.
Protect coastal habitats by obeying regulations regarding sand dunes, beach grasses and seasonal enclosures. Dunes and beach grasses are the first lines of defense against the erosion that can have devastating effects on coastlines. Seasonal enclosures are often in place to protect nesting or roosting endangered wildlife. While they do temporarily limit beach access, these restrictions ultimately maintain open beaches and prevent permanent closures. In addition, refrain from feeding shore birds.
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